Recently, Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads has made a series of highly worthwhile posts on the historical controversy about whether Abraham Lincoln, in August 1864, with the war going poorly and facing the distinct possibility of not being re-elected in November, considered abandoning emancipation as a means of stemming his growing unpopularity. The idea has a certain plausibility because things were looking quite bad for the Union in August 1864. Sherman’s army was stuck outside of Atlanta and Grant was similarly stuck outside Petersburg, Virginia. The war appeared in stalemate, which politically hurt Lincoln. However, Simpson on Crossroads discredits the notion that Lincoln seriously considered backing down on his commitment to freedom for the slaves. The posts can be found here, here, and here. In any case, the military and political crisis facing Lincoln lifted in the early days of September, when Atlanta finally fell to Sherman. Abraham Lincoln’s popularity and electoral prospects subsequently rose, and any incentive he had to abandon emancipation vanished.
Yet it seems to be the case that until the fall of Atlanta, there was definite uncertainty about whether the war would end slavery once and for all. Despite all the slaves that had escaped to Union lines or effectively freed by the federal occupation of where they lived, most slaves in the South in August 1864 were still in a state of bondage. If Lincoln had lost the election in November 1864, even if the Democratic candidate, George McClellan, managed to restore the South to the Union, he no doubt would have rescinded the Emancipation Proclamation or let it be eviscerated in the courts. Likely, many escaped slaves would have kept their freedom, as had occurred in similar circumstances in the Revolutionary War, and the ultimate survival of the peculiar institution still called into question, but in a surviving and independent Confederacy with slavery’s existence as its reason for being, no doubt slavery would have continued for many decades more if not forever.
Another interesting “what if” question in this regard was the future of slavery in the remaining loyal slaves: Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware. They were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, but especially for Maryland, the presence of federal troops and enlistment of African Americans into the Union Army had dealt slavery there a grievous blow. Yet even in Maryland in August 1864, uncertainty still existed over slavery’s survival, especially among the slaves, who had the biggest stake in the matter.
This uncertainty can be seen in the letter of a Maryland slave to President Lincoln. Annie Davis, from Bel Air, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore, on August 25, 1864, wrote simply:
Mr president It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore. my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free. and what i can do. I write to you for advice. please send me word this week. or as soon as possible and oblidge.
No doubt, Davis had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation and seen slaves gaining their freedom around her in the tumult of wartime Maryland. But her owner stubbornly hung on to her. While in retrospect, it is clear that legally in August 1864 that Annie Davis was still a slave. She was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland would not free its slaves until it enacted a new state constitution three months later in November. Hopefully, soon after Davis was united with her family across Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore. But given the uncertainty about the war’s outcome at the time she wrote Lincoln and the uncertainty about slavery’s viability in Maryland in August 1864, her confusion is understandable.